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Serena Williams's path to the U.S. Open final was blocked by defending champion Lindsay Davenport. Down went Davenport, in three sets.

Martina Hingis, the world's top-ranked player and winner of five Grand Slam tournaments, was across the net in Saturday's final. Outta here Hingis, in straight sets, 6-3, 7-6 (7-4).

Performing on the stage of Arthur Ashe Stadium, which is Broadway for American tennis players, Serena has introduced a new era in women's tennis.

For several years, women's tennis has been more compelling than the men's game. Now, following Serena's moving victory, interest will likely soar even more. It's only a matter of time before Serena's sister, Venus, 19, wins her first major title.

The Williams sisters are doing for women's tennis what Tiger Woods did to stimulate interest in golf. Many people who ordinarily don't follow golf tune in to watch Woods. Now, many casual tennis fans are likely to watch the Williams sisters. Also, they will inspire younger minorities to play tennis.

One indication of the drawing power of the Williams sisters: television ratings for the women's final were up 92 percent over last year (it had a 7.2 overnight mark and a 17 share), when another American, Lindsay Davenport, beat Hingis.

The tournament was the highest-rated since 1991, posting a 4.1 overnight rating, up 52 percent from last year's 2.7.

Serena, who turns 18 on Sept. 26, is the first African-American woman to win the national title since Althea Gibson in 1958.

When she launches herself toward the net for a volley, her face filled with voracious delight, she resembles no one so much as Michael Jordan on a fast break.

Williams brings a new level of athleticism to women's tennis, just as Martina Navratilova did in the early 1980s and Steffi Graf did later that decade.

Serena, seeded seventh, is the lowest seed to win the U.S. title in the Open era (since '68).

"Serena comes off very good in front of the camera and microphone," Craig Metcalfe, the program director at the Arthur Ashe Youth Tennis Center in Philadelphia, said Sunday. "She's not a bragger. She's the kind of young lady we want representing our community."

Metcalfe, an African-American, conducts tennis clinics at Philadelphia city schools.

"Even though the students have never played tennis, they know the (Williams) girls' names," he said.

The Williams sisters, already a presence, will be an even greater presence in the next few years. They have a chance to be the most successful African-American tennis players since Ashe and Gibson. Ashe was the U.S. champion in 1968 and the Wimbledon titlist in '75. Gibson also won the U.S. championship in 1957 and Wimbledon in '57 and '58.

More recent achievements included Zina Garrison, a Wimbledon finalist in 1990 and Lori McNeil, a semifinalist at the Open ('87) and Wimbledon ('94). MaliVai Washington was a men's Wimbledon finalist three years ago, but injuries are probably ending his career at age 30.

The Williamses are now the first family of American tennis. Venus will remain the No. 3-ranked player, behind the top ranked Hingis and No. 2 Davenport. Serena moves up to No. 4.

Hingis spent much of Saturday's final lunging for Serena's shots.

"I felt like I was always behind. I always had to be defensive," Hingis said.

When Serena cuts down on her unforced errors, she'll be even more of a terror. She committed 57 unforced errors to Hingis' 24 and still won.

"Imagine if I stop making those errors," she said.

Serena hit 36 winners compared to just seven for Hingis.

As Serena neared victory on a glorious late-summer afternoon in her first major tournament final, workers at the National Tennis Center -- many of them minorities -- filled the corners and walkways of Ashe Stadium or watched on television monitors. They wanted to see Serena conquer the tennis world on "Arthur's Court." Ashe, who died six years ago at age 49, is the last African-American to win a major tournament title (Wimbledon '75).

Shortly after winning the Open, Serena quickly learned how her life will change.

President Clinton called her from Auckland, New Zealand, where he is attending an economic conference. As if further proof of Serena's poise and intelligence were needed, her lengthy conversation with the president and daughter Chelsea provided it.

"I hope you guys were cheering for me," Serena said. They were.

Serena asked Chelsea her major at Stanford University.

"History," Chelsea replied. "I'm premed, so a lot of people are assuming I'm majoring in science."

Said Serena: "I don't think I would be able to do that. I excel in athletics."

Chelsea offered Serena a guided tour of the campus while the Williams sisters are playing on the U.S. Fed Cup team that faces Russia this weekend at Stanford.

After Venus lost to Hingis in a grueling three-set semifinal, Serena said she has never seen her sister so depressed after a loss. But on Saturday, Venus was sitting with their parents and rooting for Serena. And Sunday, Venus was back in form as the fifth-seeded sisters won the Open doubles title, beating unseeded Chanda Rubin and Sandrine Testud, 4-6, 6-1, 6-4.

Asked if the doubles championship helped soothe the loss to Hingis, Venus replied: "It didn't help at all. I'll never forget."

Both sisters speak several languages. While their father regularly makes outrageous statements, they take care of business on the court. The father talks the talk, his daughters walk the walk.

The top four women -- Serena and Venus, Hingis and Davenport -- have separated themselves from the rest. They're all young (Hingis turns 19 Sept. 30, Davenport is 23).

"There are many more years to come against the Williamses," Hingis said eagerly.

Tennis fans can't wait.

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